I recently learned that Amish people do not take or keep family photographs or painted portraits. They have no photos of themselves, their parents, grandparents and children as they grow up, their weddings, births and funerals. I was in Amish country recently. I tried to take a photo of a friend with his old Amish friends– master furniture craftsmen he has dealt with for thirty years and by whom he was invited to their homes for meals countless times–thinking it would please him to have this memory. My friend “leaned” into a smiling pose with no problem; but I was startled by a sudden shift in the otherwise always affable, courteous, welcoming Amish men, who yet did not say anything, protest in any way, too polite and sensitive to our other cultural norms as they are to stop me–their bodies however stiffened, faces went blank and gray, it was as if their spirit instantly fled temporarily, waiting outside. Of course I asked whether the discomfort I perceived was in my imagination or not. Having heard their bashful, discreet answer, fearful as they seemed to offend me, I erased the photos.
Their world is heavenly to me. They have a purity, selflessness, gentleness, honor, easy kindness, impeccable family and world ethics to which they stick with amazing brave hearts. Clearly I love them. They have what I have sought for all my life–a kind of eternal character, a lack of vanity–for me to achieve within myself and to experience in others interacting with me.
Having written a memoir, UNSEEN WORLDS: Adventures at the Crossroads of Vodou spirits and Latter-day Saints, albeit about my spiritual experiences, I could not help but ponder about the nature and worth of my own impulses and drive in writing it. Like the people of the Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints (we are not supposed to use the word Mormon any longer), the Amish will research their genealogy from carefully kept records, and write down family stories, all reliant on memory; both cultures seem to value ancestral connection and the events of our lives. but the Amish do not value faces. I marvel at this achieved kind of selflessness, free of vanity, and wanting only purity in God’s eyes.
I have also wondered about memoirs and memory and photographs. Is what I remember of my life mostly reliant on photos I collect? Do photographs direct, impose on, and limit my memory? What if I were Amish and all I remembered was left to my heart and brain? What would it be like to remember people only as your heart saw them? Is your wedding really more worth remembering than the time your one-armed grandfather helped you up your first horse?
Can the heart’s feelings of importance, the transformative and fulfilling ones, ever be photographed? Doesn’t the mind already record what really matters to us, whether joy or trauma? Was it not enough that I saw the televised execution of my cousin’s rebel companions about which I write in UNSEEN WORLDS (Guslé Villedrouin)?
I imagine that this issue of lack of photographs forces one to live in the present, the Buddhist ideal here unwittingly is met daily by the Amish. A man then possibly loves his wife as she is in the present, and not as she once was. I asked an Amish man if he minded not having images of his children when they were very young. Does he remember how they looked? He said he might suddenly remember his child’s face in the face of another he sees playing. This moved me–it spoke of our eternal interconnectedness. It matters not if my own face is remembered or if I put my best photo on Facebook–we are made in God’s image–it is the only face that matters in the end. Animals don’t need photos of themselves in their best suits to enjoy pure being in the world, nor do they ever care about the photos we keep of them. Amish painters will paint animals and the landscape. They are very Muslim in this way–no graven images. An Amish man told me without any sadness that he would love to see the country his forefathers came from. He said he may travel by train and taxi in this country. He may even take a boat overseas. And yet he cannot–his photograph is required for his passport.
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